Canucks defense questions a great problem to have

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Photo courtesy of Peter Llewellyn/USA TODAY Sports

The NHL regular season starts in just a couple short weeks, and as of now the Canucks remain an odd collective of older veterans, undeveloped prospects, guys whose best days remain in the AHL, and players brought here on a pro tryout contract and a prayer.

Believe it or not, the Canucks are close to being competitive again; it might be a long shot this season, but it’s definitely possible within the next half decade. The Sedins continue to defy age, Bo Horvat is growing into the next great Canucks leader, and Jacob Markstrom appears to be the goalie of the future.

But the most important position for the Canucks this season is on the blue line. With a team mostly made up of forwards whose best scoring days are ahead of them, the defensive core is going to be a huge key for the Canucks to have any success throughout the 2016-17 campaign. But head coach Willie Desjardins and the rest of the Canucks coaching staff have a hard decision to make before the season opener against Calgary on Oct.15.

Let’s start by looking at the Canucks defensive depth chart.

Alex Edler

Luca Sbisa

Erik Gudbranson

Ben Hutton

Chris Tanev

Nikita Tryamkin

Alex Biega

Andrey Pedan

Philip Larsen

Troy Stecher

Upon first glance you’ll probably notice that Olli Juolevi is not included on this list. With a group of defensemen as solid as these, there isn’t a need to rush Juolevi into NHL action. The best course for the Canucks’ 2016 fifth-overall selection is simply sending him back to the juniors to continue honing his craft with the London Knights in the OHL. By going this route the Canucks won’t waste a year of his entry level deal, although the team is entitled to play him in 10 games this season without burning off of his contract if they so choose.

But instead let’s focus on the serious contenders for the Canucks top spots. Most of the spaces seem to be a lock, but this leaves a seventh reserve space for lineup changes and in case of injuries. Alex Biega and Andrey Pedan have been fighting for a chance at the top six for years, and until this offseason were the main competition looking to break through. That is, until the Canucks added and signed KHL defender Philip Larsen in a trade with the Oilers, then landed NCAA champion and Vancouver native Troy Stecher of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks as a free agent.

But Desjardins can only take seven players, while the other three will be sent to the Utica Comets in the AHL. For most fans, the young and explosive Stecher is the guy they want to see in the opening night lineup.

But I admittedly think sending Troy to Utica is in the team’s best interest right now. Much like Juolevi, there’s no serious reason to rush Stecher into the Canucks lineup. While Troy would probably be getting top four minutes on the Comets, he would most likely start the season on the back pairing or in the press box if he stays in Vancouver. Playing in the AHL would give him a much better chance to improve the details of his game, whereas on the Canucks most of that energy would be focused on just staying in the lineup instead.

Right now the best call for the Canucks is Larsen, an offensive defenseman that’s spent the last two years across the pond in the KHL. Larsen has been described as a “power play specialist”, a term that’s been sorely lacking in Vancouver’s lineup since the days of Christian Ehrhoff. The closest the Canucks have come to having a solid power play setup man was Yannick Weber, but team management used him far too sparingly. If Larsen is paired up with a stay at home defender like Chris Tanev at even strength, their combination could be pretty lethal at both ends of the ice. Larsen would be utilized as a fourth forward on the power play and could be a huge asset in 3-on-3 overtime.

Pedan and Biega would both make good call ups if injuries become a problem, but won’t provide the offensive help that Larsen or Stecher could. But even that plan isn’t so clear cut. In order to send either defenseman down to the minors, each would have to pass through waivers before making it to Utica. The fear of losing a prospect to waivers is a real worry for Canucks management, especially after the mess involving Frank Corrado going to the Toronto Maple Leafs last year.

Stecher and Pedan have been two of the more impressive defensemen through the first five games of the preseason, while Larsen hasn’t gotten his best chance on a power play unit yet due to the Sedins absence from preseason action. Larsen’s one-year deal is not only a low risk endeavor, but the potential ace in the hole to push the Canucks back into the playoff hunt. The worry of losing a player to the waiver wire is a real threat, but it’s definitely a risk worth taking. The two younger defensemen are going to be important pieces in the Canucks’ long term future, which is why putting them to the minors is going to make the most sense. Vancouver is certainly close to competing for a Stanley Cup again, and if they play their cards right they’ll be competing for years to come.

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